The First Republican Presidential Debate Was Rife With Abortion Misinformation

The first Republican presidential debate included a lot of fake news about abortion.

At least four of the eight candidates standing on the debate stage on Wednesday night repeated the flagrant lie that people are getting abortions “up until birth.”

“I would love for someone to ask Biden and Kamala Harris: Are they for 38 weeks, are they for 39 weeks, are they for 40 weeks? Because that’s what the media needs to be asking,” said Nikki Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, referring to President Joe Biden and his vice president.

“What the Democrats are trying to do on this issue is wrong — to allow abortion all the way up to the moment of birth,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis added, before diving into a story about a woman named Penny who allegedly “survived multiple abortion attempts” until her grandmother saved her. So-called “born-alive” anti-abortion legislation ― purportedly meant to protect fetuses that survive botched abortions ― has flooded the country in recent years and become a right-wing talking point even though it has no scientific basis.

Other contenders like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) fanned the flames around the “abortion up until birth” myth.

“We cannot let states like California, New York and Illinois have abortions on demand up until the day of birth,” Scott said. “That is immoral. It is unethical. It is wrong.”

But it’s downright wrong to suggest that women are getting abortions up until their last days of pregnancy simply because they changed their minds about having a child. To start, abortion later in pregnancy is extremely rare: Less than 1% of abortions occur at 21 weeks or later and the subset of abortions in the third trimester (after 26 weeks) is even smaller.

Although there is not much data on why people end pregnancies in the third trimester, many physicians ― especially since the fall of Roe v. Wade ― have reported that people seeking abortion care are being pushed further into their unwanted pregnancies due to restrictions that all eight of the candidates on the presidential debate stage support. Additionally, the large majority of pregnant people who are in their third trimester have wanted pregnancies and often need an abortion for medical reasons, like finding a fatal fetal abnormality or the health of the pregnant person is being threatened.

“Abortion ‘up until birth’ simply does not happen,” Angela Vasquez-Giroux, NARAL Pro-Choice America vice president of communications and research, told HuffPost.

“The GOP candidates know that Americans don’t support their extreme bans on abortion, and they are desperately grasping at straws to muddy the waters,” Vasquez-Giroux said. “Republicans want you to be fooled by the disinformation they pushed tonight – but they want a national ban on abortion, full stop. A ban is a ban, no matter how they try to spin it.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence piled on to the misinformation garbage fire, telling the American people that 70% of the U.S. supports a federal 15-week abortion ban. Recent polling from USA TODAY/Suffolk University found that 80% of voters oppose a federal abortion ban ― including 65% of Republicans and 83% of independents.

“It’s not a states-only issue, it’s a moral issue. And I promise you that as president of the United States, the American people will have a champion for life in the Oval Office,” Pence said. “Can’t we have a minimum standard in every state in the nation that says when a baby is capable of feeling pain an abortion cannot be allowed? A 15-week ban is ideal.”

Pence, Hutchinson and Scott all voiced support for a 15-week federal abortion ban, while North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said he would not support a federal abortion ban. Haley said she would support a federal abortion ban but that passing one wouldn’t be realistic given the numbers in the Senate.

And, unsurprisingly, DeSantis pivoted when asked directly about abortion.

DeSantis added that he was “proud to sign the heartbeat bill,” a Florida law that bans abortion after six weeks. “Heartbeat bills” are another falsehood peddled by Republicans who say that you can hear a fetus’ heartbeat at six weeks; really, it’s cardiac electrical activity heard on a sonogram and a fetus would not be able to survive outside of the womb that early into pregnancy.

Despite DeSantis claiming he was proud to enact Florida’s six-week abortion ban, he signed the bill in the middle of the night and has since generally declined to comment on it.